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Archive for October, 2009

All Hallow’s Eve

Is not quite tonight, but what with the eerie weather and the dark evening and the candlelit house and the cats and the pumpkins and almost full moon, it feels almost like it.

I love Halloween. I’m not a huge participant- its been a while since my last costume (a particularly authentic Cyndi Lauper), and this year I haven’t even carved my pumpkin, and will be away tomorrow so not handing out treats. Even so, I love this holiday.

Being a kid on Halloween where I grew up was fantastic- people in that neck of the woods made a big deal of it, and so besides the candy loot and the fun of costumes, there were also folks who gussied up their homes in intricate layers of cobwebs, waxing candles, hallowed out gourds, eerie cats- there were folks who turned their lawns into corn mazes full of flesh deprived zombies, and folks who turned their hallways into purple ensconsed lairs of sorcery. And there were a lot of old, old buildings, old crumbling mansions and creaky museums whose existences seemed to be only for this one holiday.

My friends and I would run in packs of screaming, giggling girls, jumping and shrieking at the leaves that skidded across our paths, egging each other on to spookier dares. My costume was always one of pure desire and escapism- a gypsy princess, a medieval maiden, a Iroquois warrior woman- and I’d harbor the silent hope that one of those doors would open a person who saw that my costume wasn’t really a costume, but an expression of who I really was- noble, misplaced, special.

I don’t know if this is true, but it seems that in the past, the ties between All Hallows Eve and death were a little more immediate. This is the season when everything dies outwardly- trees, flowers, sunlight, all become poor and barren, and birds fly far away, and animals burrow out of sight. In times past, when the link between the natural and human worlds were a little more explicit, it seems that the anxiety of this time of year would be pretty concretely linked to the likelihood of increased mortality. Lots of people didn’t survive winters. (Where I grew up, there was an entire hamlet of people who, a century before I was born, died during one particularly severe winter). Today, our fears of death are a little less easy to pin down, a little less localized, and so they seem a lot more problematic. You could die from swine flu, right, or being hit by a car, or deployed to Iraq, or at the hands of a stranger or a lover or a family member? And at the same time, we don’t- we don’t die and the deaths of the people we love, or hate, or only barely know, came randomly, shockingly. Death is all around us, but not quite around us enough to shake a fist at, to mollify.

Halloween- all Hallow’s Eve- is about death. It’s about our fears of death, and it’s about mocking death, and it’s about honoring those who have died, and it’s about Us Not Dying (yet). There are seasons and holidays that are about bargaining with death, but Halloween is not about that at all. It’s about being gluttonously, joyfully, vividly alive- and knowing, below that aliveness, there is at the same time the unanswerable certainty of death, which is the most mysterious thing of all.

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Gratitude, gratitude!

Tonight I had a long conversation with an old friend who I had lost track of for about ten years, but thought of constantly. The strangeness of the internet, and shifting social mores around online communication aside, what really stands out for me tonight is how vividly I feel my friends presence.

This friend of mine was a person who was really really crucial to me when I was a kid and a teenager, years that simply weren’t all that easy for me, or for him. I have this deep, rich well of memories of our time together- mostly taking walks and talking- that seem to stand outside of linear time to me- memories that feel to me to be currently happening, somewhere. As if, perhaps, there was a door I could open in some basement somewhere, and step straight into a late summer afternoon, where he and I would be walking in the creek behind my house, piecing together the world.

At the same time, the glimpses I got of his life, his happiness- that makes me happy too, so happy. And I look forward to telling him about my own life now, and my own happiness, should he care to here it.

It is amazing to me, the depths of caring we are capable of. It is amazing to me, the depths of cared-for I have been.

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Michael Spencer is a Christian writer, teacher and preacher in the Baptist tradition, whose blog I’ve been reading for about 4 years now. I don’t always agree with Mr. Spencer (who always agrees with anyone?), but I do find his work incredibly interesting, and having read him for a prolonged period time, I am find that the process of watching Mr. Spencer work through his faith is an incredible gift to me as I work through mine.

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So, lately I’ve been some kind of rabble rouser of my own intellectual discontent on Facebook- rather than my cheery or sarcastic posts about work, cooking, my cat, the weather, things I’ve overheard on the bus, etc, I’ve been posting sort of random shout outs about things that drive me a little bit crazy in public conversation.

I am troubled by the way that New Atheism and Christian Fundementalism seem to want to annihiliate the other (if world views can be said to want to annihilate each other, which I think, one can argue, is maybe linguistically problematic but expresses a true idea!), but I also understand that this is the nature of any ideology that believes itself to be the Utter Truth-so I am upset by it, and disheartened, and think that the shouting sort of obscures useful discussion, I am not surprised or baffled by it. However, accepting that it is the nature of the market place of ideas to be rowdy, I’m more upset by the terms that speakers from both camps use. It’s all very topsy turvey.

First, it baffles me- utterly, mindnumbingly baffles me- that Christians, of any stripe, would resort to logic or some version of the scientific process to prove a solid foundation for faith. Faith- in all of its own frustrations and heartbreak- is real and amazing because it transcends proof. My experience learning about God and learning about God’s love for me is amazing and sits at the core of my being, and is what I depend on, because it is something I don’t need to constantly analyze and figure out and demonstrate it exists. It exists outside and beyond my ability to comprehend it, and my ability, or lack thereof, doesn’t alter it, and that is a tremendously reassuring, joyful, gratifying thing. When someone tries to demean God, or faith, or religious traditions by attempting to have them fit nicely into some tidy logic hole, the magic, the life of my experience of those things flees, like a pinned down butterfly’s soul.

I understand having dark moments of doubt, of agnosticism and even of atheism, and from those places demanding proof. But I don’t understand, from a place of faith, recognizing the scientific process as a valid method of exploration into faith.

So. So when religious people take faith, and then twist it into something proveable, it drives me nuts. I can’t help but think it drives God nuts too, as the religious people always seem to fail- Young Earth Creationism? Abstinence Only Education? Attempts to prove the flood happened, or that Christ was Christ? These things inevitably fail, spectacularly, embarrasingly and painfully, and, while I am sure this is improper, I can’t help but thinking this is God’s way, maybe, of saying “Na-ah, guys. The game does not play this way.” As materialistic as we Americans are, I think that metaphor of a camel passing through the eye of a needle is as apt when discussing the difficulties of self-satisfied Americans to allow themselves to be publically uncertain as it is of discussing the difficulties of rich men letting go of all their possessions.

Now, the Atheists. Most of the time, the arguments for atheism (or anyway, agnosticism) make a lot of sense to me- and I think the arguments that blindly following a religion is dangerous are almost universally good arguments. However, when the particularly publically vocal brand of New Atheists begin saying that All Religion, All Faith in God, is universally a bad thing and that all human problems flow from it, I also feel that these atheists are resorting to the same sort of problem of approach that their brethen in debate do on the other side- namely, when atheists stop treating religion as a cultural artifact of human existence, which is the direct creation of human beings from specific cultures and in response to specific problems (both local and universal) and instead treat it as something that stands outside of human beings, as if it exists on its own- well, then atheists tacitly, whether they like it or not, concede that there is something of religion which does exist independently of human conception. And isn’t that a particularly dangerous place for an atheist to go?

I get irritated with the notion that if religion were to suddenly die out, the things that religious people fight over would suddenly die out. It seems to me that when we study religious wars, past and present, and when we study religious intolerance, what we are looking at is examples of people doing awful, ugly things for untamed lust- for power, for control, for “rightness”, for violence. The lust gets prettified and justified under words of righteousness- but the religion, it seems to me, is not the driving force. I wonder if the atheists who believe the world would be saved if just this foolish supersticious nonsense would go away really can’t visualize a world where people are cruel to each other and go to war over nationalism, over ideologies, over political purity, environmentalism, regionalism, etc. etc. The fact is, any abstraction can as easily be used to articulate our goodness as it can be used to cloak our evil, and ultimately the problem of social injustices, outrages and horrors has to lay squarely at our own feet- there is something innate in *us*, something about being human, which makes us prone to terrible, terrible acts.

It seems that both sides do the larger audience of humanity a disservice- pseudo-scientific Christians who impoverish the public meaning of faith, and faithful atheists whose scientific rigor could be put to such better use sussing out what it is humans- all humans, not just religious ones- which makes us prone to listen to the demons of our counsel, not just the angels.

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